A Boom for Whom?: The Camming Industry and the Covid Crisis

—Angela Jones

Given that Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry, was recently published, my email and social media inboxes have been filled with messages from colleagues and friends asking how I thought the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the camming industry. Many assumed that social distancing was increasing income for cam models. One person shared with me a New York Post article entitled, “Business Booming for Cam Girls amid Coronavirus Outbreak.” I immediately thought, booming, for whom?

Government agencies have been directing porn production companies to close down shoots, which means more professional pornographers are seeking work in other segments of the erotic economy such as camming. Dark studios mean pornographers also move to sites such as Onlyfans and turn to sex worker communities for support and survival. Not limited to professional pornographers, coronavirus regulations have shut down brothels and entire red-light districts. The closing of large porn studios, strip clubs, and other sex markets leaves some workers looking to camming as a resolution to lost wages—especially given that many of these workers are ineligible for government stimulus. However, sex workers migrating online are moving into an already saturated and highly competitive industry that privileges specific workers.

As I show in Camming, while high incomes in the industry do occur, such earnings generally occur among young white thin cisgender women from the US who have spent years building popular brands and have a sizable client following. Breaking into the industry is difficult, and requires much time, skill, and decent equipment (e.g., a good computer, webcam, HD lighting).  So, if business is booming, I assure you, it is for a small segment of cam models and well-known porn stars only.

To gauge the effects of the pandemic on cam models, I reached out to a few cam models who participated in my research for the book. One performer, who said I could use his real cam identity, Alec Hardy told me:

So, in my experience so far, there might be more members, but there are more models online too. So, I feel more of a decrease in overall member count…[in] my room. When it comes to regulars/bigger spenders, my guys are still spending about the same amount, but are already very conscious about it and also telling me they might not be able to spend as much soon. And also, a lot of the members were usually watching cam from the office/workplace, etc. And I too have a few guys who just quickly message me telling me that they think about me, but they can’t take me private because they are stuck in the house with their wife and kids.

Alec’s story paints a much different picture of the global pandemic’s effects on the camming industry than the NY Post article. More people at home and online does not necessarily translate into profits for any of the players in the market. 

In Camming, I looked to popular web forms for cam models to gather additional worker’s perspectives beyond my survey and interview samples. I did the same here, and when I logged onto the forums, cam models disrupted the idea that social distancing was having a positive effect on their earnings. As one femme presenting cam model noted, “I think even though people are spending more time at home, there will be less time for some…as many have families. Secondly, many aren’t being paid. Subsequently, there will be less money about and more models online so more variety as well, meaning less people in your rooms as there are more rooms to spread about. I think unless you are a top model, you will be earning less among this crisis.”

As I discuss in Camming, the industry provides an income opportunity to mothers in contexts where daycare is expensive and allows parents of school-aged children to be more involved and present. So, for parents who cammed while kids were in school or otherwise out of the house, now, cannot work at all. Rebecca, a long-time sex worker and cam model from the book, told me, “Since I am the primary caregiver for children and do not have childcare or school available anymore, my entire routine and schedule has changed.  It has been an enormous adjustment for me and my loved ones. But camming will always be there when things get back to normal someday.” Another cam model from a web forum said, “My daughter’s school is now closed…I cammed when she was at school. I can’t work now.”

On the client-side, a consumer posted, “The exchange rate from USD to my local currency (AUD) has ‘tanked’ as well. So, I’m unsure if I can justify spending as much on tokens [camming currency] as I have in the past. I am actually considering taking a ‘spending’ break.”

As these comments underscore, yes, more people around the world are home, but many performers are home with families, and now unemployed clients are cutting back on spending. Clients will still log on to get off, but if they are not spending and there is an increase in what cam models call “freeloaders,” a terrible situation emerges. In essence, more competition means more extended hours and more work for even lower wages. Given the mental health toll of the pandemic, it is also critical to consider how taxing it must be for people to perform sexual labor for long hours for inadequate compensation.

As I argue in Camming, the industry is saturated. It was saturated with workers well before the pandemic hit, and unfortunately, camming will not provide the economic stimulus many are looking for in the industry. In the book, I posit that the inequality generated by global capitalism means that, for so many people around the world, the costs associated with becoming a cam model are prohibitive, and access to the technologies and private space required to cam are not available. The pandemic only exacerbates this reality. Critically, increased market saturation, the class-based and racial-disparities in healthcare access and infection, and the digital divide will undoubtedly mean that while already successful porn stars and cam models will see a boom, the most marginal workers will not—if they are even able to work at all.

CammingAngela Jones is Associate Professor of Sociology at Farmingdale State College, SUNY. She is the author of Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry, available from NYU Press. 



Feature image courtesy of Alec Hardy

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